National Grange Is Formed

The National Grange was the first major organization in the United States to address the social, economic, and educational needs of rural farming populations. Local chapters often became involved in business ventures and political affairs as well, helping to drive down farming costs. The organization also was instrumental in the passage of the Interstate Commerce Act of 1887.

Summary of Event

A federal bureaucrat and former farmer, Oliver Hudson Kelley founded the National Grange of the Patrons of Husbandry during the late 1860’s out of a deep concern for the plight of persons living in rural areas of the United States. He believed that a fraternal organization for farmers and other country folk would contribute to their social and economic well-being. A tour of the southern states in 1866 confirmed what Kelley had already grasped through his ownership of a farm in Minnesota: Rural life was hardly a paradise. National Grange
Agriculture;National Grange
Kelley, Oliver Hudson
[kw]National Grange Is Formed (Dec. 4, 1867)
[kw]Grange Is Formed, National (Dec. 4, 1867)
[kw]Formed, National Grange Is (Dec. 4, 1867)
National Grange
Agriculture;National Grange
Kelley, Oliver Hudson
[g]United States;Dec. 4, 1867: National Grange Is Formed[4110]
[c]Agriculture;Dec. 4, 1867: National Grange Is Formed[4110]
[c]Organizations and institutions;Dec. 4, 1867: National Grange Is Formed[4110]
[c]Social issues and reform;Dec. 4, 1867: National Grange Is Formed[4110]
[c]Trade and commerce;Dec. 4, 1867: National Grange Is Formed[4110]
Ireland, William M.
Hall, Caroline A.
Saunders, William

The Jeffersonian vision of the small farm and contented citizen-farmers had crumbled along the more sparsely settled frontier and backwoods areas. Many rural men and women experienced intense isolation, and although they might travel long distances to overcome it, social life and community were difficult to sustain. As a member of the Benton County Agricultural Society, Kelley also had come to understand the harsh economic realities of agriculture and had begun plans to improve the farmers’ lot. Whether Kelley expected it or not, the Grange would provide the basis for a widespread Agrarian movement for political and economic reform that would rock the major political parties for decades.

In 1867, Kelley left Minnesota to accept a position as a clerk in the U.S. Post Office in Washington, D.C. There, he and William M. Ireland Ireland, William M. , another clerk who, like Kelley, was a Freemason, began to plan the organization and ritual for a secret society of farmers that would both bind farmers together and advance agriculture. At the suggestion of his niece, Caroline A. Hall Hall, Caroline A. , and others, Kelley decided to admit both men and women into the organization. With several other interested government employees, Kelley quickly worked out a constitution. On December 4, 1867, five of the seven men later designated as founders constituted themselves as the National Grange of the Patrons of Husbandry and proceeded to elect officers. William Saunders Saunders, William , a horticulturist in the agriculture bureau, became the first master, but Kelley continued to play the leading role in the organization.

In 1868, Kelley resigned his government position and began promoting the formation of local Granges. He and his team first organized a local chapter, the Potomac Grange, and used it to experiment with the rituals and other organizational aspects. Letters and circulars to farmers around the country, however, elicited only a meager response. Kelley then toured the Midwest, attempting to sell charters at fifteen dollars each for the establishment of local Granges. He met with almost complete failure and was able to continue only by borrowing money and drawing on his wife’s small inheritance. Before 1870, only a handful of local Granges had sprung up, mostly in Minnesota Minnesota;Grange and Iowa, Iowa;Grange and in the next year, only scattered chapters existed in nine states.

Kelley’s persistence paid off starting in 1872. The growth rate of the Grange increased sharply. Although only 132 new Granges appeared in 1871, about thirteen thousand formed within the next three years. Most of the Granges were located in the Midwest, but the network extended into almost every state. Deteriorating economic conditions undoubtedly drove many farmers to seek out organizational remedies. A few months before the Panic of 1873, a farm depression had foreshadowed the national business slowdown. Farmers who may have been looking at the Granges as a social opportunity now spotted the potential for economic mobilization.

Although the early motivations for the Granges may have been social and educational, local chapters often became involved in business ventures and political affairs. The local and state Granges experienced some success in eliminating or reducing the fees of the middleman in purchasing farm equipment and supplies. In some cases, state organizations appointed agents to deal directly with manufacturers. Montgomery Ward and Company, a Chicago-based retailer, incorporated with the express purpose of trading with the Grangers. Spurred by their success in cooperative buying, many state and local Granges expanded into retailing, manufacturing, and insurance.

When the national-level Grange had amassed a surplus from charter fees, it lent $50,000 to state Granges to assist in their expansions. Most of these enterprises eventually failed, however, because farmers lacked experience in selling and manufacturing; some Granges suffered mismanagement, lost membership confidence, and went into bankruptcy. Moreover, manufacturers, wholesalers, and retailers resisted the Granger initiatives. On the whole, however, the movement was successful in forcing down prices, despite limited success in business ventures.

During the 1870’s, several farm-state legislatures passed so-called Granger Laws, which placed maximum limits on railroad and warehouse rates. In Munn v. Illinois (1877) and similar cases, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that state rate-fixing was constitutional. The Supreme Court later reversed itself in Wabash, St. Louis and Pacific Railway Company v. Illinois (1886), but the pressure from the Granges helped push Congress to create the Interstate Commerce Commission Interstate Commerce Commission in 1887, which helped pass the Interstate Commerce Act (1887) Interstate Commerce Act of 1887 .

Contemporary print celebrating the values of the National Grange movement.

(Library of Congress)

Pressing state legislatures to enact maximum rate legislation enhanced the prestige of the Grange movement nationally. Although the constitution of the Grange forbade political activity, state and local Granges often were active politically. Other farm-oriented organizations were operating at the same time, sometimes more effectively than the Grange in the political arena, but they lacked the national organization and ready identification of the Grangers. To the American public, the farmer-sponsored legislation concerning railroad rates were Granger Laws.


Despite these perceived political successes, membership in the Grange decreased between 1875 and 1880 almost as rapidly as it had grown from 1872 to 1875. By 1877, membership was down to 411,000 (half the 1875 total), and by 1880, rosters reflected only 124,000 dues-paying members. Ironically, many of the once-attractive features of the Grange became liabilities in the second half of the decade. Rural Americans had found the cooperative features attractive, but when these business endeavors failed, the overall organization lost credibility. Similarly, when political action associated with the Grange movement was successful, the membership grew, but when Granger legislation proved ineffective, many farmers withdrew their support.

After 1880, the Grange continued to function as a social and educational outlet for rural populations, a civic center in small towns, and a bastion of the rural lifestyle in the face of urbanization and modernization. Granger-associated insurance companies remained strong into the next century. Granges also worked closely with the expanded state and federal agricultural extension services.

In politics, other farmers’ organizations superseded the Granger movement. The Northern, Southern, and Colored Farmers’ Alliances of the 1880’s became powerful political forces, as did the Populist Party Populism;and farmer organizations[Farmer organizations] , which hit its peak during the early 1890’s. In many ways, these later farmers’ organizations were descendants of the National Grange of the Patrons of Husbandry, the first large-scale attempt at agricultural organization in the United States.

Further Reading

  • Barns, William D. “Oliver Hudson Kelley and the Genesis of the Grange: A Reappraisal.” Agricultural History 41 (July, 1967): 229-242. Overturns the interpretation that Kelley suddenly conceptualized the Grange in 1867 and established it for mainly social and educational ends.
  • Blanke, David. Sowing the American Dream: How Consumer Culture Took Root in the Rural Midwest. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2000. A history of the economics of consumerism and consumption in the rural Midwest, with a chapter called “A Battle of Standards: The Renunciation of the Rural Consumer Ethos by the Patrons of Husbandry, 1875-1882.” Includes an extensive bibliography and an index.
  • Buck, Solon J. The Granger Movement: A Study of Agricultural Organization and Its Political, Economic, and Social Manifestations, 1870-1880. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1963. The first serious scholarly history of the Grangers.
  • Gilman, Rhoda R., and Patricia Smith. “Oliver Hudson Kelley: Minnesota Pioneer, 1849-1868.” Minnesota History 40 (Fall, 1967): 330-338. Explores Kelley’s agricultural experiences prior to leaving Minnesota to start the Grange.
  • Goodwyn, Lawrence. Democratic Promise: The Populist Moment in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1976. Contrasts the perceived radical strategies of the Farmers’ Alliances with the conservative strategies of the Grange.
  • Nordin, Dennis Sven. Rich Harvest: A History of the Grange, 1867-1900. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1974. Argues that Kelley was a reluctant advocate of cooperatives and radical strategies.
  • Woods, Thomas A. Knights of the Plow: Oliver H. Kelley and the Origins of the Grange in Republican Ideology. Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1991. Maintains that Kelley, consistent with his Republican ideology, envisioned the Grange from the outset as a more political and radical organization.

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American Federation of Labor Is Founded

Interstate Commerce Act

U.S. Census Bureau Announces Closing of the Frontier

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